Remembering “The Inner City Mother Goose”

A condensed version of this article appears on The Atlantic’s CityLab

At the close of the 1960s, as the optimism of America’s Post-War economic growth seemed to be fading and the promise of the civil rights movement was giving way to the Nixon-era “law and order” retrenchment, as Johnson’s War on Poverty was being replaced by a new, harsher war on the poor, use of the term “inner city” was peaking as a catch-all phrase to capture the sorrow, the anger, and the blame popularly associated with urban poverty. These two short, common words combined in the mouths of the nation — from a whisper to a scream — to evoke a world of associations, realities, myths, fears, and outrages: crime, drugs, blighted neighborhoods, bad schools, pollution, slum housing, chronic unemployment, and forgotten people, nearly always Black.

Use of the other common shorthand term, “ghetto,” follows an almost identical trajectory. In the years following, residents and activists have pushed back on these terms, calling out their coded racism, and liberal-minded usage panels have increasingly rejected them as a shorthand for urban poverty. (The President apparently missed — or disregarded — this memo.)

But back then, in the shadow of riots and rebellions in Chicago, Watts, Newark, Detroit, Washington DC, Baltimore, Kansas City, and dozens of other cities across America, in the wake of failed or frustrated anti-poverty programs and a growing sense of hopelessness of all sides of “the problem we all live with,” the poet Eve Merriam recruited these two little words in the title of her inspired little book of verse, The Inner City Mother Goose.

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Unassuming at first — a slim, square volume, easily mistaken for any other collection of light children’s verse — the book quickly declared itself a force to be reckoned with. In the six short lines of the first poem,1 Merriam simultaneously issued an invitation for an audience and fired a warning shot across the bow of an all-too-complacent nation:

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Boys and girls come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day.
Leave your supper and leave your sleep,
And join your playfellows in the street.
Come with a whoop and come with a call:
Up, motherfuckers, against the wall.

Thus, from the outset, through that one direct, brutal profanity — incidentally, the only actual swear in the entire book — it was clear that this was a different sort of Mother Goose. From here the book proceeds relentlessly, 65 verses in all, pulling no punches as Merriam takes the reader on a street-level tour of real life in the city, an unromantic “Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?” that includes the dope pusher, the mugger, the slumlord, the junkie, the uncaring and ineffective public school teacher, the trapped latchkey kid, and more.

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Visions of Alt-Berlin in “Man in the High Castle” (no spoilers)

A condensed version of this article appears on The Atlantic’s CityLab.

When used judiciously, establishing shots are one of the most useful techniques in film and television. As the curtain opens on a new scene, a director is able to convey a whole range of important information—the when and where of the setting, as well as the overall mood and moment that we are about the enter—all through a single short shot. Such is the power of imagery.

The first season of Amazon’s new serial adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternative-history thriller, “The Man in the High Castle,” has already made excellent use of this technique, often lowering the viewer into scenes of Nazi-occupied New York or Japanese-occupied San Francisco with shots of key buildings or landmarks. We know and love these cities and we immediately recognize these places—only to be jarred by the superimposition of the familiar (Times Square, the Golden Gate Bridge) with new “alt-history” signifiers (swastikas galore; Rising Sun banners; propaganda on the billboards). In a similar vein, the show’s haunting credit sequence—one of the best in recent memory—uses both landmarks and maps to set the stage and orient the viewer. Planners and urban designers would be wise to take note: these short segments beautifully illustrate the ways history, memory, landscape, politics, mapping, and meaning are interwoven in the ways we “make sense of place.”

Early in the second season, however, these shots take on an entirely new—and quite horrifying—relevance, especially for urban planners who know their history. As the story traces back to the corridors of power in the Fatherland, we get our first establishing shot of the Nazi capital of Berlin, looking east past the famous Siegessäule (Victory Column), towards the Brandenburg Gate.

The column itself is nothing surprising: visitors to Berlin today will find it there in the Großer Stern (Great Star) rotary, although when it was originally erected in the 1870s it was much closer to the center of town. In 1939, the 59-meter column was relocated to this spot as the opening salvo in a massive urban planning assault on the historic city led by Hitler’s First Architect, Albert Speer. (In the process, the column was also made 7.5 meters taller through the insertion of additional stone drums; as will become obvious, size mattered quite a lot of Hitler and Speer.)

Speer’s plan—developed in close collaboration with Hitler, who understood the nationalistic power of architecture and urban design—was to transform Berlin: the old city was to be reborn as Welthauptstadt Germania (Germania, World Capital), the seat of the new empire. (The location titles of the show chose to stick with “Berlin,” presumably to give the audience a clearer real-world referent; or perhaps, in deference to his uneasy truce with Japan in the show, the Führer is holding off on claiming total world domination for the moment.)

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Meowtropolis: Review of “Kedi” (New York Observer)

My review of Ceyda Torun’s 2016 documentary KEDI is now out in The New York Observer.

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Everyone in the neighborhood has a favorite cat—they give them names, personalities, entire narratives. Strangely—beautifully—in anthropomorphizing the cats, residents themselves are humanized in the exchange. One senses that Istanbul is a more caring, communal, functional city thanks to the influence of these strays. There is a lesson here: while cats are independent in spirit, they are also fundamentally social at heart. As such, they the perfect urban dwellers: self-sufficient, but also trusting; adventurous and bold, yet still careful and cautious; curiosity mixed with consideration.

See here for the complete review.

(UrbanFilm web extra! If you enjoy the story of Istanbul’s street cats in KEDI, you might also enjoy the 2013 documentary-essay TASKAFA: Stories of the Street, by Andrea Luka Zimmerman, which follows the tales of the cities stray dogs.))

“Behemoth” review on CityLab

The Atlantic’s CityLab features my review of the Zhao Liang’s hauntingly meditative documentary, Behemoth. Click, read, watch, share.

[R]ather than focus close-in on the maw of this insatiable beast, Zhao places his lens at a quiet and safe remove. The effect, however, is not to deliver security, but instead to emphasize scale, an even more distressing aspect of the devastation shown. One explosion may be terrifying, but a relentless series of detonations over thousands of acres becomes almost mundane, a banality of evil. The very vastness inures us to the horror of watching a valley turned into a wasteland, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

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See CityLab for the full review.

Rebels with a Cause (Nancy Kelly, 2014)

This documentary, subtitled “How a battle over land changed the American landscape forever,” recounts the battles to stop development of the country’s national seashores and other recreation areas. More broadly, it seeks to describe the birth of the modern environmental preservation movement, giving full credit along the way to the “little people” — garden clubs, small farmers, hippies, and community activists — who took the fight to the nation’s capital — and won.

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Narrated by Frances McDormand (FARGO, MOONRISE KINGDOM), the story unfolds from small regional struggles to a national movement with petitions to the White House and eventual action by both the President and Congress. Beginning in Northern California in the 1950s and 60s, the notion of saving the agricultural land in Marin County from development began to took root; with Kennedy’s election, attention shifted to the Cape Cod seashore — but rather than play into the politics of division, the emerging movement grew to embrace both coasts. Soon lands in the east and west — and much more — were on the preservationist agenda. What had once seemed an unconnected string of local fights was a snowballing national movement attracting causes (and supporters) across the country.

Along the way, we hear from an all-star cast of 1960s crusaders, including Stewart Udall (Secretary of the Interior from 1961–1969), Huey Johnson (co-founder of the Trust for Public Land), and Amy Meyer (co-chair of People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area). Importantly, for urban and regional planners, the film is unequivocal about exactly why these lands need preservation: all too often — both then and now — natural areas are consumed by rampant and poorly planned residential sprawl.

The film is directed by Nancy Kelly. If you enjoy it, you may also want to check out her 2002 film, DOWNSIDE UP: HOW ARE CAN CHANGE THE SPIRIT OF A PLACE, which explored the creation of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the role it played in revitalizing the post-industrial town of North Adams.

Watermark: Reflections on a Vital Resource

For one week starting April 11, the Kendall Cinema in Cambridge will feature a new film called WATERMARK by Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky. It’s a clever and fitting title, as the film’s main theme is both transparent and indelible: by exploring the myriad ways that water connects, supports, and shapes life on earth, and the reciprocal ways that humans exploit, worship, transform, and increasingly threaten this precious resource, we come to appreciate the changing nature of our relationship to the limitless world of water and the limited water of the world.

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Similar to the team’s 2006 award-winning collaboration, MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES, the film follows Burtynsky as he travels around the globe to create large-format photographs of large-scale phenomena. Together, we confront stunning examples of just how profoundly our species has altered the planet’s natural water systems: the concrete walls of the towering Xiolangdi and Xiluodo dams; the technicolor contamination of tannery runoff sluice-ways in Dhaka; the immense “Water World” grid network of floating abalone farms in the South China Sea; and the dry river beds and toxic dust storms left behind from the thirsty snaking aqueducts in California and elsewhere. Added to these environmental and infrastructural landscapes — again, as in the previous film — Burtynsky’s eye seeks out massive rivers and oceans of humanity as well: beaches thronging with people at the U.S. Surfing Open; crowds, mesmerized hourly, by the Bellagio’s Dancing Fountains in Las Vegas; and the obligatory story of 30 million pilgrims streaming down to wade in the Ganges River each year.

Through Burtynsky’s lens and the still images he creates, we see these people, places, and problems transformed into luxurious, wall-sized, 60-megapixel color prints; the flow of the film is punctuated with pauses as the finished photographs emerge and expand to fill the entire screen. At the same time, through Baichwal’s lens and the moving images she captures, we learn how these photographs were made and — perhaps more importantly — we learn how read them and make sense of what we are seeing. In the words of the director, “Watermark tries to create a space to think about something in a different way. After three years of almost total immersion, I will never turn on a tap with the same unconscious nonchalance that I did before we embarked on this challenging and deeply rewarding film.” Taken another way, the “watermark” of the title could therefore evoke this hidden sigil, a promise of potential transformation for those who look: that is, the life-altering change in perspective that great art is able to bring about may require us to stop for a moment to seek it out.

The film illustrates Burtynsky’s process, guiding us through his unique way of inquiry as he visits each location and uses his camera to reflect critically and think deeply about our dependence on water and the effects of our actions on the planet’s natural systems. We see him approach each image – often with a jeweler’s loupe fastened to his eye — to probe the pictures and extract the stories contained within them: to help us learn this process ourselves, the film likewise zooms in to the actual scenes and animates the stories, restoring the context and life frozen (or perhaps encapsulated) by the camera. When treated as such — by a truly inquisitive, reflective, actively-engaged viewer — Burtynsky’s photographs can be recognized as a form of fully “synoptic art” (following Allan Bloom’s introduction to Rousseau’s Emile): similar to great works of philosophy, they present “something with which one can live and which becomes deeper as one becomes deeper.”

Finally — again, as with a true watermark — the images in the film also serve as proof of the distinctiveness and quality of this particular product, and no written review can convey the power and complexity of these images: Burtynsky has selected the perfect medium to make his points; Baichwal’s equally important contribution is to guide us (wordlessly; artfully; showing, not telling) so that we may learn to see in new ways and begin to think with an active eye that connects what we observe with what we know, feel, experience, and perhaps ultimately, choose to do about it.

Living in Boston, we are extremely fortunate to be able to see this film on the big screen, as it must be seen, even if for just one week.1 Consider these brief comments as a teaser for the film, not a replacement: go see it, pause, and think about the landscape of water you inhabit.

Footnotes:

1 The film is also scheduled to screen throughout April and May in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago, Austin, Charlotte, Denver, Seattle, Portland, and elsewhere — see http://burtynsky-water.com/watermark/us-screenings-theatre-listings/ for complete listings.

Blow-Up: the Filmerick

As described previously, I’ve been exploring a new medium, the “filmerick” (limericks to summarize great films). Over the weekend my daughter and I were fortunate to catch a special screening of BLOW-UP at the Harvard Film Archive, and here’s what I came up with:

BLOW-UP (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
With all of its visual glories,
And behavior abhorrent to Tories,
Mr. Antonioni,
has certainly shown he’s
proficient in shaggy-dog stories.

The film itself is great, of course: a wonderful, touchingly sad meander through 1960s London, ushering in what would later be recognized as a golden age of the cinema of urban alienation and the search for meaning amid the chaos of modern life.

I was especially moved by how beautifully Antonioni filmed both the perfectly balanced “design world” (fashion shoots, bohemian artist “live-work space”) and the eclectic clutter of “real London” (crowds and demonstrations, junk shops, construction sites). Both draw you in – part of the mystery implied in every shot – and one leaves the film with an appreciation for the eye’s uncanny ability to frame and capture the art all around us. (Although whether we can every truly grasp and understand what we capture is another story altogether…)

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“Filmericks” from my “City in Film” class

This semester I’ve been teaching a new course on “The City in Film” in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. As the syllabus describes:

Using film as a lens to explore and interpret various aspects of
the urban experience in both the U.S. and abroad, this course
presents a survey of important developments in urbanism from 1900
to the present day, including changes in technology, bureaucracy,
and industrialization; immigration and national identity; race,
class, gender, and economic inequality; politics, conformity, and
urban anomie; planning, development, private property,
displacement, sprawl, environmental degradation, and
suburbanization; and more.

My plan is to vary the films shown in the course from year to year, but to always include a balance of classics from the history of film, an occasional experimental or avant-garde film, and a number of more recent, mainstream movies. This year’s lineup includes the obligatory (and excellent) METROPOLIS, an NYC romp in ON THE TOWN, a touch of photo-realistic noir in THE NAKED CITY, some psycho-geographic dérive in LONDON, and much more — 13 films in all.

To help liven the class up a bit (as if all these great city films isn’t enough!), and also to help us all keep the films straight, I’ve challenged the class to come up with limericks for each film. Writing a few of my own, I think I may have invented a new artform: the “filmerick.” Here’s what I came up with for the first three films:

METROPOLIS (Fritz Lang, 1926)

Joh Frederson’s city is smart,
The brains tell the brawn when to start.
       But inspired by Hel,
       The workers rebel:
The HEAD and the HANDS need a HEART.

BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A CITY (Walther Ruttman, 1927)

Made from hundreds of meters of stock,
And covering block upon block,
       This film, like a rhyme,
       Shows a town keeping time:
BERLIN is one big cuckoo clock.

MODERN TIMES (Charles Chaplin, 1936)

With all of its plot twists and swerves,
This film, like a clarion, serves
       To give the impression
       That the Great Depression
Did a hell of a job on our nerves.

Stay tuned for more…

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (Chad Freidrichs, 2011)

There are a number of important films that tell a story that you’ve never heard before; THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH, on the other hand, tells a story you’ve heard many times over, but does so in a way that makes you stop and question what you thought you knew, leaving you in a state of mind to keep thinking about it long after the film ends.

In brief, the film recounts the history of the now-infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project, through the voices of past residents (as well as a couple notable experts in housing policy and urban history, including both Robert Fishman and Joseph Heathcoat). The details of this story are known by all: built in the early 1950s in Saint Louis in an attempt to eliminate slums and provide new modern housing for the city’s anticipated post-war growth (and perhaps also maintain color lines in this deeply-segregated city), the project soon came to symbolize the ills of large public housing projects; by 1972—less than two decades after opening—work began to raze all 33 structures at the site. The dramatic images of the demolition—a huge public housing project literally imploding—now serve as haunting reminder of this past, a visual shorthand for the failure of modern planning and the sad shift from noble ambition to national resignation.

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“Haunting” is a good word to describe the atmosphere of the film as well: the camera lingers on empty corridors and barren trees; crying and speechless men and women, once children who called the towers home; grainy images of times now gone. But rather than offering up a resigned funeral dirge—or even a reproachful eulogy—over the death of public housing, the film takes time to explore the space created by this loss, probing for meaning like a tongue forever seeking out the hole left by a lost tooth. Through the stories and recollections of people whose lives were shaped by Pruitt-Igoe, we come to share the fears and the joys it once housed, revisiting the timeline in a reflective, non-linear way. Like Kurosawa’s classic RASHOMON, one senses that there is no simple answer to this puzzle of Pruitt-Igoe, no absolute lesson to be learned from this past, but rather many questions to continue to ask; the “myth” to be busted is that we can pin all of the problems on a single element (the design, the density, the racist bureaucracy and white flight, the drugs and gangs, the breakdown of the family in northern Black cities, etc.) and prescribe a pat prescription so “this will never happen again.”

At a pivotal moment, Brian King (a former resident and the real moral anchor for the film) describes the day his older brother was shot in front of their building: watching his mother—helpless and overwhelmed and grief-stricken—frantically trying in vain to shove her son’s viscera back into the hole in his chest. In the end, at least for the space of the movie, we feel the same mix of loss, frustration, anger, and helpless over the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe—wishing more had been done, but knowing full well that the problems facing cities in the 1960s and 70s were bigger than one housing project alone could solve.